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Trailblazer: The remarkable life of the School of Medicine’s first black graduate

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When Jean Louise Harris was a child growing up in segregated Richmond, her mother, Jean Pace Harris, took her and her sister shopping one day at Charles Department Store, which like many public places had separate “colored” and “white” water fountains. Harris grew thirsty inside, and her mother directed her to the white water fountain. Before Harris could get a sip, a white woman rushed toward them and said, “You can’t drink there.”

Without hesitating, Harris’ mother calmly but firmly told her daughter, “Drink.”

Then she turned to the white woman, looked her in the eye, and asked, “Why?”

It was a challenge more than a question.

The woman retreated without saying another word.

The clerk behind the counter was so taken aback she didn’t really know what to do. She did not know how to handle this brown woman and two brown children sitting there ...

The moment was not an isolated one in Harris’ childhood. Years before the integration of lunch counters in the South, Harris’ mother would take her children to the lunch counter at Woolworths, sit them at the counter and wait to be served. The first time she did this, Harris remembered in a 1982 interview for the Church Hill Oral History Project, “the clerk behind the counter was so taken aback she didn’t really know what to do. She did not know how to handle this brown woman and two brown children sitting there and the whites on either side looked and then in embarrassment looked straight ahead. No one wanted to deal with this. We were served. And she did this repeatedly and they never knew what to do. So rather than create a great brouhaha, they would serve us.”

One store that didn’t sell clothes to blacks always sold clothes to her mother, Harris recalled. She simply walked inside and bought them as if she belonged, because she believed she did. Once, as Harris’ mother inspected a hat at Thalhimer’s, a saleswoman sternly warned her that blacks could not try on the hats. Harris’ mother responded by giving the saleswoman a tongue-lashing. Then she modeled the hat, returned it to its place and said she guessed she did not need it and left.

When Harris’ elementary school supplied its students with battered, torn books handed down from the white schools – books that were covered in the scrawls and notes of the students who had previously owned them – Harris’ mother erupted in righteous outrage, raising an uproar at a school board meeting and declaring, “I will not accept this.” The books were replaced with new ones.

Inspired in part by her “quiet fireball” of a mother, who refused to bend to unjust rules, and her physician father, Vernon Joseph Jackson Harris, a family practitioner who would routinely take her on rounds and house calls, Harris may have been the ideal candidate to integrate the Medical College of Virginia (now the Virginia Commonwealth University School of Medicine), which she did in 1951 when she became the first-ever black student at the venerable medical school. Harris thrived as a student at MCV and then throughout a rich and varied career that followed. In doing so, Harris, who died in 2001, became an integral part of VCU’s history.

Among her many accomplishments, Harris was both the first black and the first woman to ever serve in a Virginia governor’s cabinet, holding the post of secretary of health and human resources from 1978 to 1982. Also, in the realm of public policy, Harris served as a consultant on health issues to the U.S. Agency for International Development, the National Institutes of Health, the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, and the U.S. Congress. She held advisory positions on health commissions for multiple presidents. In 1990, she ran unsuccessfully for lieutenant governor in Minnesota, becoming that state’s first black candidate for statewide office.

Harris also served stints on the faculty of MCV (where she was the school’s first full-time black faculty member), Howard University in Washington, D.C., Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore and the Drew Postgraduate School of Medicine in Los Angeles. In addition, she held posts as director of medical affairs for the University of Minnesota Hospital and Clinic, as vice president with Control Data Corp. and as president and CEO of the Ramsey Foundation.

At the time of her death following a three-year battle with lung cancer, Harris was the mayor of Eden Prairie, Minnesota, a city near Minneapolis. In a life filled with firsts, she was that municipality’s first black mayor.

Harris grew up in the Church Hill neighborhood of Richmond, not far from the MCV campus. Her neighbors included L. Douglas Wilder, the future governor of Virginia, who she remembered as being like “Peck’s Bad Boy” – an infamously mischievous child who starred in a series of newspaper stories and books – while a classmate of hers at George Mason Elementary School. She later graduated from Armstrong High School, before attending Virginia Union University, where she was a standout student.

Harris knew she wanted to be a doctor like her father, whom she described as her “idol,” but she and her parents believed attending MCV was a long shot, assuming she had little chance of being accepted at a school that had yet to enroll a black student. In her 1982 interview, however, Harris looked back on that time and believed MCV ultimately saw “the handwriting on the wall” that school desegregation was in motion. The school accepted her, and she joined the 1951 incoming class. Instead of leaving the state for her medical education, as would have been necessary, Harris would be staying close to home.

The initial adjustment to medical school was a difficult one for Harris – not as much academically as socially. She had never before been in the presence of more than a few whites at a time and never in such isolation. Years later, she would laugh with her classmates about the confusion she had felt among them her first days on campus. In fact, she said, she had not been able to tell one white person from another for the first six to eight weeks of class. They had all blended together. Her classmates, meanwhile, “did not know what to expect of me either. The only blacks they had seen had been principally in their kitchens.”

One early incident poignantly illustrated her circumstances. She was grouped with other new students for their first dissection of a human body. They were assigned a cadaver, but it was too rotten and they had to get a new one. In anticipation, one of her classmates remarked offhandedly, “Gee, I hope we get us a big fat [N-word] mammy.”

The student immediately “went absolutely red and everything went quiet,” Harris remembered. Harris was astonished but determined not to show it. She searched for a response and replied – with what she remembered as equanimity – “Do you think that one will be easier to dissect than the one we have now?” The class, noticeably and collectively embarrassed, proceeded with the dissection.

Afterward, the student who had made the remark approached Harris at her locker and said, “I hope you will forgive me. I wasn’t thinking.”

Soon, Harris felt a bond develop with her classmates and understood there was a level of acceptance. “They began to feel I was a part of that community,” she said. When she joined some fellow students for a study session at the Skull and Bones, a campus restaurant, the manager refused to serve her. Her classmates, however, responded that they wouldn’t be served there either, providing her with a jolt of encouragement, and then left with her to study elsewhere.

I was not prepared for Jean. I was raised in a Confederate cradle, and until then my school and college classes had been all-male, all-white and mostly private school graduates.

Hunter McGuire Jr., M.D., was one of Harris’ classmates at MCV. He admits, “I was not prepared for Jean. I was raised in a Confederate cradle, and until then my school and college classes had been all-male, all-white and mostly private school graduates. I wasn’t a snob or active segregationist. I was just naive.”

McGuire said that Harris’ presence was influential not just for the many aspiring black physicians who would follow Harris to MCV after she broke the school’s color barrier. It also was critical for white students such as McGuire, who needed to have their world expanded and their assumptions and prejudices confronted head on. It helped that Harris was such a likable person and impressive student, he said.

“I recall Jean as being gentle, smart but never showy, happy to help but never demanding,” McGuire said. “These qualities made me want to take her side when the MCV trustees decided to cancel a graduation dance rather than integrate. Having seen and sided with her graceful example probably helped prepare me for [later] sharing a rotation and room with a very good black intern in Cincinnati. I feel indebted to Jean for enlightening me.”

John Myles, M.D., who was part of Harris’ clinical rotation her final two years of medical school, said the demanding, intense nature of medical school helped strengthen the ties between all of the students. He remembered Harris as an affable, pleasant classmate who endured with poise the same daily challenges the rest of them faced – while dealing with a set of issues uniquely her own. “Our whole mode was survival,” he said. “We were absorbed by ideas in medical school.”

Harris would later recall the satisfaction she felt proving herself in the classroom among the overwhelmingly white and male student body and faculty. She served notice with her first neuroanatomy examination – she scored a 96 – that she was more than proficient enough to belong.

“The whole Department of Anatomy was informed,” she said. “They did not believe this. One of my professors came to me and said, ‘You had a 96,’ with all that that implied in his voice and face – that they could not believe a black could think. I had penetrated their own stereotypical barriers of what Negroes were like.”

Harris’ status as a woman made her experience doubly difficult, forcing her to overcome twice the doubts about her ability to succeed. She had just six fellow women in her class, and “our teachers, as well as the boys in the class, let it be known that they considered us intruders. We were taking up a slot that should have rightfully gone to another man.”

Myles and McGuire both acknowledge now that they were surprised to be in medical school with women. Myles, who spent his first two years of medical school at West Virginia University, where there were no female students in medicine, said he had simply never considered women would be studying alongside him at MCV. “It had just never occurred to me,” he said.

In that climate, Harris was comforted by the friendships she formed with some of her fellow women students. Still, when a new sorority was formed to provide support for the small band of female students, Harris was the only one not invited. Two of her classmates refused to join in protest. “These are the small things that eventually began to break down,” Harris said.

Faculty and fellow students were not the only ones who had to adjust to Harris’ presence. There were also the patients. During her clinical rotations, Harris would often care for patients who could not believe she was black. They openly wondered if she was Spanish or Puerto Rican or just deeply tanned from a trip down South. “It was all kinds of things,” she said.

Her race, however, never affected her training, she said – not during her time in medical school nor during her residency at MCV. She was relieved that discrimination never kept her from learning and practicing what she needed to know, and she appreciated that MCV ensured her experience fell in line with her peers.

“I worked on both the white wards and the black wards,” she said. “I delivered white babies and black babies. I did my surgical training on white patients and black patients, and it was a good experience for MCV as well as for me, and it certainly was a good experience for those white patients who would otherwise never have seen a black physician. And, of course, they never saw me as a student or an intern. They saw me as a, quote, ‘physician,’ which made a difference in terms of their perception of black ability.”

Harris graduated in the spring of 1955 in the top five of her class. The magnitude of Harris’ accomplishment became apparent soon after her graduation when Ebony magazine featured her on the cover of their July 1955 issue. Less conspicuously, but perhaps even more powerfully to Harris, the same faculty members she had fought to convince of her worthiness made an effort to advocate for her in her professional pursuits. Several of them wrote letters of recommendation to colleagues, and two worked to get her admitted to study at the Octagon Institute in Paris.

She did not opt for that path, instead choosing a medical career in the United States and building a family with her husband Leslie Ellis, with whom she had three daughters. The career that unfolded ultimately was a mesmerizing and astonishing thing to the woman who led it.

“I believed that I could do anything. I really believed that. I set my mind to it, but never in my wildest dreams anticipated the advances that blacks as a group would make or that I as an individual would make,” she said. “In my lifetime, I feel I have been fortunate to be standing in the right place when the train comes by.”

I believed that I could do anything. I really believed that. I set my mind to it, but never in my wildest dreams anticipated the advances that blacks as a group would make or that I as an individual would make.

In 1998, Harris told the St. Paul Pioneer Press that she was not always eager to take on the next task. She was brave but not immune to feeling daunted and discouraged.

“There were so many times I didn’t know if I could face the challenge. But I learned to become a calculated risk-taker. I also learned that each challenge created a richness in the whole. By surmounting the obstacles, I was able to grow.”    

In her own way, Harris spent her life perpetually in her mother’s footsteps, refusing to bow to indignities and determined to push through apparent obstacles. She marveled at the influence she had, and she reveled in the rewarding opportunity to observe – and participate in – steady, if ever-incomplete progress.

In her 1982 interview, Harris said she felt optimism for the young people she saw reaching new heights, and she felt a sense of accomplishment knowing she was one of the many men and women who had helped prepare the path for them.

“The fact is that if we hadn’t been ready to sacrifice and butt our heads against the wall and prepare and excel, then it would have been more difficult. It wouldn’t have come as fast. I mean, laws, you can change a law, but if you haven’t got somebody to walk through that door, the door may as well remain shut.”

 

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